Werner Herzog is a director who loves to show his viewers that he’s passionate about something. He never blows smoke but tells it just the way it is, and he possesses this incredible ability to make every subject of his movies relevant to his audience. Don’t ask me how he does it. Herzog knows how to thrill people, and he knows how to touch them. He knows what it takes to capture their attention, always. He did it in Grizzly Man, his mesmerizing documentary about the late Timothy Treadwell, the famous bear activist, and he does it again in Rescue Dawn, a nail-biting drama about a pilot’s struggle to survive the dangers of the Laotian jungle.
Based on a true story, the film centers on Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. Navy pilot whose first mission during the Vietnam War ends in an unexpected catastrophe. Shot down over Laos, Dieter is taken hostage by the Viet Cong and dragged through the jungle into a POW camp, where he is held captive with several other prisoners, including two Americans named Duane (Steve Zahn) and Eugene (Jeremy Davies). Tortured on a daily basis and often deprived of food, Dieter eagerly develops a perilous escape plan, at least until Eugene reminds him that “it’s the jungle that is the prison.” But not even nature can hold Dieter back.
Rescue Dawn is partly based on Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a 1997 documentary in which Werner Herzog visits the real Dieter Dengler in his home and asks him about his experiences during his captivity in Laos. Born in Germany, Dengler knew the image of war long before he came to America. At one stage during the movie, he even recollects hiding in an attic during the bombings. He says he watched the big planes flying by his house and instantly knew he wanted to become a pilot.
This time Herzog takes a break from documentary filmmaking and chooses a more dramatic approach to tell Dengler’s story of survival. The result, of course, is fantastic. The film is not about war or politics, but about Dieter and Dieter alone. Herzog spends two hours depicting the man’s dreams, his tragic accident and his quest for survival in the jungle, but every minute of it is utterly captivating. It’s fascinating how he brings Dieter so close to the viewer and lets us see what he sees and think what he thinks.
Rescue Dawn was entirely shot on location in Thailand, which is probably why I consider this movie as one of the most realistic experiences I have ever seen on the big screen. Thanks to Herzog’s excellent camerawork, we get to see the jungle as it is, without any special effects or added decor. The camera is always right there in the middle of the dirt, which lets us see and hear the danger of the Laotian jungle. It also accounts for all the suspense in the film, and mostly generates more fear than many dark horror thrillers that try and tickle audiences via loud music and shock moments. Here in this movie, it’s watching Dieter being literally devoured by bushes that is creepy and intense.
Bale, who lost a lot of weight for his role in The Machinist, lost about 55 pounds for this movie. He offers a sincere performance as Dieter Dengler and plays his character with passion and grandeur. He makes it easy for us spectators to sympathize with him and share his opinion and motives. Bale is positively backed by Steve Zahn, who unlike in most of his films, delivers quite a serious performance as Dieter’s fellow Duane, also a captive at the camp.
Although Rescue Dawn was produced on a slim budget and failed to storm the North American box office, the film can be considered a big blockbuster for Werner Herzog, who usually keeps a safe distance from mainstream filmmaking and relies on a loyal fan base he’s established over the years. Nonetheless, his latest movie is nothing short of a masterpiece. Let me wrap up this part of the review with a striking quote from Dieter about his journey through hell: “When something is empty, fill it. When something is full, empty it. When you have an itch, scratch it.”
As I mentioned earlier, Werner Herzog is a man with great passion, and the best way (other than a feature film) for a director to share his passion with his viewers is via compelling bonus material. Fortunately for every Herzog fan, the Rescue Dawn DVD comprises a highly informative special features section that will give you an even deeper insight into the film and its hero, the late Dieter Dengler.
Besides a decent still gallery and three deleted scenes with optional commentary by Werner Herzog, the disc includes 45 minutes worth of featurettes. The most impressive one is “Unfinished Business,” a sincere homage to the real Dieter Dengler, who passed away early in 2001. Herzog and Dengler’s son Alexander talk about how Dieter came to be a pilot and how he survived the Laotian jungle during his captivity. Another compelling making-of is “Strength of Character,” in which actors Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies talks about how they prepared for their roles and what it was like to work with the great Werner Herzog.
The four featurettes on the DVD shine a lot more light on the production of the movie and the life of Dieter Dengler, but the filmmaker’s commentary with Werner Herzog and interviewer Norman Hill offers the viewers the best and most interesting information about Rescue Dawn. What surprised me most here is that the commentary is set up as an interview format. Hill asks most of the questions and Herzog gives honest and elaborate answers, which makes watching the movie a second time quite an enlightening experience. They pretty much cover everything that has not yet been approached in the featurettes, and openly discuss anything from writing the script and setting up the scenes to editing and music.
Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn is a nail-biting adventure and a strong story of survival that deserves to be told. If you are fascinated by Dengler’s tale after watching the movie and would like to know more about him, the special features on the DVD come in quite handy, and if you’re looking for more information on the perilous shooting in Laos, they serve the same purpose. Whatever it is you are after, the Rescue Dawn DVD is a must-have.